Showing some signs of life behind its “gay priest tempted” premise, In the Name Of is best when it isn’t easy. Middle-aged Adam (a flinty Andrzej Chyra, showing wells of fear in his eyes) is a Polish cleric running a rural halfway house for delinquent teenage boys, spending his days trying to curb his rough-hewn charges’ worst instincts: They snarl “Jew” and “fag” at each other, bully a mentally challenged villager, and resist the discipline wielded by Adam and teacher Michal (Lukasz Simlat) from the classroom to the cow-grazed soccer field. A latecomer to Christianity, Father Adam preaches at Mass that he’s been liberated from “the prison of my selfishness,” but it seems to take the form of painful self-negation as he ambiguously studies his shirtless students’ macho cavorting, restless in the pre-dawn envelope of his gloomy residence until he lays in the bath and masturbates. His presence in the hick town remains a mystery, as Michal’s longing wife gets no answer to her question, “Why were you moved from Warsaw to this shithole?” But the nature of his recurring trap becomes clear when a shaggy, possibly pyromaniacal youth with the unpromising nickname of Humpty (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) seeks solace at the priest’s door, getting his bloody nose tended and washed in a charged tableau of charity and desire, before falling asleep with his head on Adam’s lap.
Director Malgośka Szumowska and her co-writer/cinematographer Michal Englert eschew a sensational approach, with no interest in condemning their tortured protagonist as a criminal; “I’m not a pedophile, I’m a faggot,” he weeps in a confessional video chat with his sister. (They do hedge their bets by casting Kościukiewicz, an actor in his mid 20s who looks his age, as the object of infatuation.) While the setting and austere interiors are expressively grim, In the Name Of could have used more nervy scenes like the one where Adam, in the wake of discovering two students noisily fucking, goes on a vodka bender and dances furiously with a portrait of Pope Benedict. The brutish physicality of the teens, even before they begin to gossip about their minder’s sexuality, is germane to this man’s world, whether Adam is doing call-and-response ape grunts with Humpty in a cornfield, and even in the juvenilia of a weenie roast (one kid has to blurt, “My sausage is on fire!”). But the priest’s obsession with early-morning distance running as sublimation, and Szumowska’s too-frequent use of buzzing flies in the priest’s house as some kind of symbol of decay, contribute to an overwrought miserabilism that inhibits any larger social significance. Up to its final shot, which interpreted narrowly could feed malevolent theories about the priesthood as an all-but-official refuge for self-loathing gays, the film is almost as confused about the moral quandaries of its characters as they are.